While Louisiana struggles to restore coastal wetlands ravaged in large part by decades of oil and gas drilling, its senior senator is leading the effort to lift the ban on drilling off Florida's Panhandle.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is a co-sponsor on legislation by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to open up new areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas development. Introduced last month, Senate Bill 1517 would allow drilling in federal waters 45 miles off the Panhandle's coast. Current law bans drilling within 125 miles of Panhandle beaches and 235 miles of Gulf Coast beaches south of Tampa.
Opposing the Murkowski-Landrieu plan is U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a longtime foe of offshore drilling. He joins other Florida leaders worried about drilling's impact on the state's lucrative tourism industry, which in 2008 alone generated more than $65 billion for Florida's economy and $3.9 billion for the state in tax revenue.
"This isn't even thinly veiled," Nelson said. "It's an oil industry bailout plan. And it's Alaska and Louisiana's senators plan to boost their own revenues in tough economic times. But even in the toughest of times, there are some things states shouldn't sell out, like Florida's economy and environment."
Why is Landrieu pushing the plan?
She says it's out of concern for rising oil prices, though the U.S. Energy Information Administration says drilling in areas that are currently restricted would result in negligible savings to consumers.
Meanwhile, Landrieu and Murkowski are among the top congressional recipients of campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the industry is Landrieu's second-biggest contributor besides lawyers, investing more than $711,000 in her campaigns over the past 12 years. In the 2008 election cycle, she ranked first among all congressional recipients of oil and gas PAC contributions, receiving more than $171,600. The oil and gas industry is Murkowski's third-biggest contributor after leadership PACs and electric utilities, donating more than $286,000 to her campaign over the past seven years; she's also the top recipient of oil and gas PAC contributions in the current election cycle.
Last year, the League of Conservation Voters placed Landrieu on its "Dirty Dozen" list of lawmakers, noting that her lifetime score from the environmental advocacy group of 43% made her the worst Democratic senator on environmental issues among those running for re-election.
"For a Senator from Louisiana, which faces severe consequences from global warming, to fail to protect Louisiana is disappointing," LCV's Tony Massaro said at the time. "Senator Landrieu joins the [Dirty Dozen] because she acts more to protect Big Oil than the future for the people of Louisiana."
A Football Field Lost Every 38 Minutes
Sen. Landrieu was among those who suffered personal losses from Hurricane Katrina four years ago, as the storm and the subsequent levee failures and flooding destroyed her lakeside home in New Orleans.
One reason the devastation to inland areas like New Orleans was so severe when the Category 3 storm hit Louisiana is because coastal wetlands that once served as storm breaks have been swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past 75 years, Louisiana has lost more than 2,300 square miles of coastal wetlands -- an area equivalent in size to the entire state of Delaware.
Between 1990 and 2000, Louisiana lost about 24 square miles of land each year -- equivalent to about one football field lost to the sea every 38 minutes, according to the state's Department of Natural Resources.
While some of Louisiana's land loss can be blamed on natural processes, coastal experts say most of the destruction is due to human alteration of the landscape. One factor is the thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines and canals cut through coastal wetlands, opening them up to saltwater intrusion that kills vegetation and leaves the land vulnerable to erosion.
In fact, between 40 and 60% of Louisiana's coastal wetlands loss can be traced to oil and gas activities, according to the Gulf Restoration Network. From 1983 to 2008, for example, Houston-based Shell Oil dredged 8.8 million cubic yards of coastal lands in Louisiana while laying its pipelines -- activity that GRN and other environmental advocates calculated as having caused the loss of 22,624 acres of wetlands.
Land loss is not the only environmental damage from oil and gas drilling. Last month alone, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico contaminated several beaches along the Texas coast, while a leak from a Shell pipeline 30 miles off the Louisiana coast created a nine-mile-long slick in the Gulf.
Storms increase the risk oil and gas drilling pose to the environment. Four years ago, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita together caused 124 offshore spills that dumped more than 743,000 gallons of pollution into the ocean, according to the federal Minerals Management Service. Onshore spills from pipelines, tanks and refineries added another 9 million gallons of pollution to the mess.
A Starker Choice for Florida
Sen. Landrieu has long been an advocate for coastal restoration efforts. For example, the annual energy and water appropriations bill recently passed by the Senate contained hundreds of millions of dollars for Army Corps projects in Louisiana that she championed, including coastal restoration initiatives.
But her push to allow the oil and gas industry to expand its operations in the Gulf of Mexico while federal processes to address land loss remain in disarray would inevitably mean putting other areas of the Gulf Coast at risk of the same drilling-related wetlands destruction experienced by Louisiana.
Unlike Louisiana, Florida has long opposed drilling off its coast, seeing it as a threat to the state's $65 billion annual tourist economy. When Chevron discovered natural gas deposits in Florida waters in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, the state objected to plans to tap them, leading the Bush administration to buy back leases from Chevron, Conoco and Murphy Oil for $115 million.
This past April, amid concern about rising energy prices, the Florida House passed a bill allowing offshore drilling in state waters -- but the measure died in the Senate.
Then along came Murkowski's and Landrieu's bill, which resembles an amendment in a Senate energy bill written by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would also permit oil and gas rigs within 45 miles of Florida's Gulf coast. But unlike Dorgan's proposal, the Murkowski-Landrieu plan includes a revenue-sharing provision to sweeten the deal.
In 2006, another piece of legislation sponsored by Landrieu gave Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas 37.5% of proceeds from fuel production in the Gulf -- returning to the states an estimated total of $6 billion a year that previously went to the federal government. The arrangement aimed to compensate them for the environmental cost of pipelines and other infrastructure.
Florida wanted no part of that earlier deal, but Landrieu hopes the revenue-sharing provision will hold appeal because of the state's fiscal crunch. As she wrote in a June op-ed that ran in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call:
"Had revenue sharing been a part of the bargain, Floridians would have faced a choice involving rewards and not just risks. Given Florida's current $6 billion budget deficit, such a choice would be starker today."
But as Sen. Nelson has pointed out, the proposal is hardly a panacea for Florida's financial woes, since the money states raise from offshore drilling in federal waters can be used only to repair damages caused by drilling, such as coastal restoration and pollution cleanup.
The question facing the Senate is whether that makes drilling worth the environmental damage that Florida will inevitably suffer.
(Originally published at Facing South)